Uncovering Vancouver’s Queer History
May 26, 2020
Glenn Tkach is a Storyteller at Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours and creator of The Really Gay History Tour. Launched in 2018, the walking tour runs at 2 p.m. every day during PRIDE and every Sunday from March to November.
Glenn tells us how the in-depth archival research and personal interviews he conducted during the development of the walking tour transformed him as a person.
Hi Glenn, thanks so much for taking the time to sit with us!
Thanks for having me. I am looking forward to sharing more on the stage at the East Side Pride this weekend!
First off, tell us a bit about the Really Gay History Tour Glenn. What is it? How did it come about?
This project started out as a curiousity about the somewhat undocumented history of queer people in Vancouver. At Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours we take guests on a journey into the city’s hidden histories, and I had a hunch that there were some secrets that needed to come out of the closet.
As I began to piece together our history with hundreds of hours of research in the dusty corners of the City of Vancouver archives and through intensely emotional personal interviews I quickly began to understand that this project would become much more. Part of my curiosity in the first place about digging through these stories was to figure out where I fit into this lineage. I can now see, in retrospect, that I was partially driven by a personal need to understand myself better.
The final product, the 3 hour tour through downtown and the west end is not just the story of queer people in Vancouver, it is the story of how a whole society evolved to become more diverse and inclusive. It is an in depth look at the social history of the city. In a way, its the story of all of us.
One of the things that is most striking about the tour is that you include stories from “every letter, and number” in the LGBTQ2 spectrum. Was this a conscious effort?
From the beginning inclusiveness was something that was very important to me, and I was particularly conscious of wanting to include stories that may otherwise not be told. Diversity in terms of race, economic status and gender were on my radar and but the “queer alphabet” actually happened a bit more organically through the research.
Many surprising things presented themselves in the research process and I allowed this to guide the tour creation, rather than trying to retrofit things. One of my favourite stories, that we open the tour with, is a 2 Spirits story, which takes us back to the early 1800s, and perhaps the most moving story on the tour is that of Jamie Lee Hamilton, a local trans woman who has played a huge, yet relatively unsung, role in the queer liberation movement in Vancouver.
When sharing the story of how decriminalization happened (or didn’t…), we do not gloss over the details, in fact we dig right in. On the steps of the old Vancouver Court House (the current Vancouver Art Gallery), guests hear the shocking stories about how in the early in the 20th century the buggery statutes were used to arrest and imprison people of colour in Vancouver and that arrests actually went up after decriminalization.
One of the most challenging parts for me on this topic of inclusiveness has been wondering “who am I to share these people’s stories?”, particularly when the stories are about a part of the spectrum that I, as a gay man, do not represent. I am grounded in the fact that much of this tour was created through personal interviews and first hand accounts, and I am deeply humbled to have been entrusted as a guardian of people’s personal histories.
Many of our tour guests have lived through some of the events that we highlight and contribute their own personal stories while on the tour, which has been such an enriching experience. And then there are our younger guests, who routinely express that they are so grateful to have access to this untold history of our community, that they – like me – were longing for this lineage and an understanding of where they fit into the bigger story.
Queer history does not have a begining and and end, our story begins in the very distant, undocumented past, and will continue well into the distant future.
How has creating and delivering this tour redefined PRIDE for you?
Until creating this tour I had actively distanced myself from the queer community.
As a teenager I was a member of a penecostal church in rural Alberta. I was not forced to go there, I chose to, and I believed all of it. I had to sacrifice some things about myself to do this.
When I left that community I decided I would not be defined by a group again. I wanted to lose all labels, and figure out who I am as an individual. When I finally did come out of the closet I did not want to put on the ‘gay label’ because of that experience. I distanced myself and did not want to be part of the community as I feared, like in my previous experience, that would mean sacrificing something. Being queer is just one part of who I am, but it is not who I am.
[Glenn holds back tears] Through the process of creating this tour I began to realize that this community that I was keeping at a distance was a heroic community and lineage to be a part of and I should be PROUD to be a part of that. This was incredibly transforming to me. Meeting with people, learning about people like ted northe and Jamie Lee Hamilton, and the sacrifices that they made and the courage that these people have shown — I am proud to be associated with them and I am humbled to be able to share their stories with queer people and our allies on the tour.
I have realized that this is an incredible history to be a part of, and now I have found a way that I fit into it. The creation of this tour really helped me to figure out who I am in this way. I am proud to fill a gap between an older generation and a younger one, and pass on our untold, often buried stories. That is what I can do.
Being A Part Of The Tour Is An Act Of Pride.
Being of part what the experience could be reduced to is a guy could be reduced to is a guy in dressing all in pink and marching a group down Gravanille, talking about queer history, in public, sometimes quite theatrically or loudly. The tour itself a kind of pride parade. I am noticably gay and broadcasting it at the top of my lungs. Often our guests are too, and our guests often wearing tour stickers that say REALLY GAY.
Even though there are many somber moments, and highly emotional parts of the tour, the overall feeling is that this is a celebration of queer history and I am PROUD to share this with our city.